The Cardington softball team advanced to the Division III state championship for the second straight year by defeating West Jefferson by a 5-2 margin in Thursday’s semifinal contest.
Also for the second straight year, the Pirates will play Warren Champion, who topped Byesville Meadowbrook by a 10-0 count in Thursday’s other semifinal. Last year, Cardington fell by a 9-4 margin in the title game, making this a rematch they are definitely looking forward to.
“We still have the line-up card from last year in the scorebook and there’s a reason for that,” said head coach Tod Brininger.
“Last year kind of kicked us in the butt a bit,” added Baylee Adams. “I think this year will be better.”
To have a Saturday morning date with the Golden Flashes, the Pirates needed to overcome West Jefferson, who went from being the seventh seed in the Central District to reaching their first-ever Final Four.
Nerves may have gotten the better of the Roughriders in the early going, as they committed three errors in the first two innings in falling into a big hole.
Cardington got two runners on base without a hit in the first inning, as Kierson George led the game off by drawing a walk and Baylee Hack was hit by a pitch with one out. Chelsey Miller then drove in both runners with a double.
“She struggled for two or three weeks just with confidence,” said Brininger of his sophomore catcher. “I think she feels like she can hit now.”
Casey Bertke then hit a foul ball that was dropped by West Jefferson to bring a third run across the plate in the opening inning.
Leading 3-0, Bertke then got through the bottom of the first with no damage done, despite giving up a hit and walk. For the game, the junior stranded 10 Roughrider base-runners — two each in the first three frames and one in each of the final four.
“I don’t really get that nervous because I have a great defense behind me,” she said. “I’m used to being in tight situations, so it wasn’t too bad.”
The Pirates added two runs to their total in the second inning. Reanna Roth led off with a single. Taiylor Hubley followed with a bunt single and Roth was able to score on an errant throw in an attempt to nab her at third base. George then popped up, but Hubley was able to score, as two WJ fielders collided on the play and the ensuing throw to third was wild.
“When you realize you’re messing up plays that are routine, it’s nerves,” said Roughrider pitcher Isabelle Fisher. “We thought it was so big, we forgot it was a regular game.”
The West Jefferson players added that the atmosphere at Akron Firestone Stadium added to the nerves. Cardington schools were out for the game, so there was a huge contingent of Pirate fans on hand.
“I think it freaked out a lot of the underclassmen,” said Brooke Roberts. “A lot of Cardington people were here and it rattled them a bit.”
Brininger added that his team tried to take advantage of any nerves their opponents had with aggressive baserunning — another potential factor in WJ’s errors.
“Nerves definitely played a role,” he said. “We were trying to be ultra-aggressive on the bases and put pressure on them. They’re an excellent team, but we forced them into a couple mistakes.”
While Cardington’s aggression hurt them later in the game, as the team had two runners thrown out at home plate, they didn’t need any more runs. While West Jefferson had runners on base in every inning, they were only able to break through in the fifth inning, as a single by Haley Kurtz, a double by Roberts and a triple by Lexi Bowman — combined with a Pirate error — resulted in a pair of runs.
However, Cardington held the team to two base-runners over the final two innings to preserve their advantage and move on.
Bertke finished with five strikeouts, while giving up eight hits and three walks, while hitting one batter. Her team mustered nine hits, Bertke had a double and single, while Miller and George both had doubles and Roth and Hubley added two singles each.
Now the team will have its rematch with the Golden Flashes. According to George, while Cardington had goals to win the conference and district, their main one involved their state championship opponent.
“Our main goal was to make it to state and play Warren Champion again,” she said.
Rob Hamilton can be reached at 419-946-3010, ext. 1807. Connect with him on Twitter at @SportsMCS